Having superpowers sounds really cool. You get to fly around, go invisible, shoot fire or ice from your hands. But have you actually read a superhero comic? These miraculous powers are rarely all that they’re cracked up to be, and more often than not, it’s not those with abilities who hold the real power. That theme resonates in Project Power, a high-octane action flick with a bit of New Orleans soul and a cast led by two guys who know a thing or two about comic book movies, Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Netflix continues to assert itself as home for the blockbusters we aren’t getting theatrically because of the pandemic. Project Power hits you in the face right from the break. It’s a pretty ridiculous premise, but a fun one that lends itself to a lot of insane visual effects. Still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is the testing ground for an illegal drug that gives the user superhuman powers for about five minutes. Your satisfaction may vary, however. The wildly unpredictable results could yield something amazing, like the chameleon ability to fade into the background, or you might simply burst into flame and die.
Gordon-Levitt, in a role as close to the Robin we hoped we’d get from him in The Dark Knight Rises, plays Frank, an NOPD officer on the edge, and an occasional user of the drug. Only when he needs it to protect his city, of course. He’s close to a young drug pusher named…well, Robin (Dominique Fishback), who peddles the $500 pills to help her ailing mother. If the city wasn’t already dangerous, mixing in superhuman abilities has only made it worse, and the addicted more desperate to get their fix. Into this combustible mix is Jamie Foxx’s The Major, a mysterious man on a mission either to push the drugs himself, or stop them at the source.
Project Power is directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the tech and social media savvy duo behind the documentary Catfish and a pair of Paranormal Activity flicks. Their style has always been energetic and full of clever bells and whistles, which they bring to the film. The finest example is a crazy armed robbery sequence where Frank chases down a suspect whose powers allow him to melt into the background like a chameleon. Frank, also on a five-minute kick, races through the city as his target keeps shifting colors, sometimes at breakneck speed.
It’s a wild set piece that sets an off-the-wall tone. Secretive government forces are involved, because of course they are, and their plot mirrors the introduction of crack cocaine into black communities during the 1980s. Project Power isn’t going to shovel any of this stuff at you, but I couldn’t help but see a missed opportunity for a richer, more complex look at what the politically powerful do when the poor gain some power of their own. Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (of The Batman) focuses on keeping the momentum up while giving his characters time to pick out how their extra-normal would be pretty funny if they weren’t so dangerous. Gordon-Levitt shows off a mean Clint Eastwood impression when Frank’s life is on the line.
Foxx, whose most recent bout with the genre was as Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, gets a better role here as The Major. He gets all of the best fight scenes, including a scorching one against Machine Gun Kelly’s enhanced drug pusher. It may seem that Foxx’s part is pretty lean, eventually there’s more to The Major than we’re first led to believe. At least Foxx doesn’t have to look stupid in blue this time. It was a welcome change that Gordon-Levitt’s selfless Frank wasn’t treated as in over his head, and I really enjoyed Dominique Fishback as the self-reliant, always-hustlin’ Robin. While I could do away with the “aspiring rapper” trope writers always saddle on at-risk black protagonists. Fishback at least tries to make the character her own. I’m always impressed by her ability to believably play any age she’s called upon, depending on the amount of emotional weight placed on her. In the stirring drama Night Comes On she tracks as much older, while here and in HBO series The Deuce her youth is what stands out.
Project Power is an atypical superhero movie arriving at an abnormal time in the world. It’s a stretch to even call it that because there are no superheroes at all, just people going to superhuman lengths to feel special for five minutes. There’s a lot more that Project Power could probably say about the plight of neglected communities, but sometimes you just want to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt take a bullet pointblank to the head and get up to keep on fighting.